Stewart Francke • A Life Well Lived
On the Eve of Being Honored for a Lifetime of Achievement,
Saginaw’s Favorite Son Talks About Highlights of His Career,
Key Life Lessons, and Invaluable Advice from the Greats of Rock ‘n Roll
By Robert E. Martin
As an artist that has taken the experiences, personalities, and places populating his hometown, chronicling the lessons and poetry gleaned from each for posterity in written & musical formats immutable to the ravages of time, the bond that I have shared with Stewart Francke goes beyond friendship into realms of personal and professional symbiosis – a quest, if you will, for escalating common emotions associated with achievement, survival, intimacy – and overcoming hurdles of fear, loss, and disappointment, into a comprehension that carries a value and permanence that transcends the tools they are created upon.
Over the past two decades, The Review has published several in-depth interviews with Francke that collectively serve dual functions of biography and dialectic – a way to look beyond the artistry of ‘product’ and into the forces that give birth to the creative process in the first place; and the importance of an artistic voice to give those impulses both shape and meaning for present and future generations.
On Thursday, May 7th, The Saginaw Arts & Enrichment Commission will give Stewart Francke a 20th Anniversary Lifetime Achievement Arts Award for his “passion for music and the joy his songs bring to so many in his home state and beyond.” This will take place at The Dow Event Center at 6:30 PM, and the event is open to the public.
Having survived both leukemia and a bone marrow transplant, Francke’s most recent CD release is this year’s ‘Alive and Unplugged at The Ark’ in Ann Arbor.
In terms of creative output over the past two decades, Francke’s work has been consistent, releasing eleven albums since 1995 with a new one on the way this year.
In addition to his All Area Award acknowledgement for a lifetime of achievement, Stewart has also won a dozen various Detroit Music Awards in categories ranging from Best Songwriter to Best Album, along with a special award for his work setting up the Stewart Francke Leukemia Foundation.
As The Review celebrated its 30th year of publication and as Stewart received the announcement for his Lifetime Achievement Award, we sat down for this latest in-depth discourse…
Review: Apart from your semi-autobiographical 'Saginaw' material, you've also chronicled a lot about the trials, tribulations, and legacy of Detroit. When you look back at both Saginaw and Detroit over the past 20 years, what are the types of changes you notice? Apart from the obvious economic issues impacting both areas, are there any interior changes with the mindset of the people that populate these communities that have either inspired or give you pause for concern?
Stewart: The artist’s job is to clarify and share his own obsessions. To make people care about his obsessions, whatever they may be and then find a context for them among the cultural climate of the times he lives in. Then the music has a chance to transcend those earthly conditions. A big part of my job is to be an emotional alchemist. My obsessions have included the spiritual and physical well being of my primary and secondary hometowns in Michigan—Saginaw and Detroit. So my obsession is really the minds and hearts of folks that live in this state.
What is the real cost of living an engaged life? And in turn what are the costs of isolation? As you said, the changes in both towns have been many, but the biggest issue remains race.
Saginaw and Detroit have historically been segregated by physical boundaries. In Saginaw it’s the river and in Detroit it’s 8 Mile. And on either side of those physical boundaries come differences in lifestyle, health, education, income, opportunity and safety. And that is still cause for great stress and bewilderment—why there remains such economic disparity among people living three, four miles apart. There is no “us and them.” There’s a moral obligation to care for each other. We’re dependent on each other regardless of whether we know each other’s name.
Both cities cultural scenes are integrated with great success—the music and performing arts communities in each town work best with all races combined. As musicians we aren’t color blind—we recognize and glorify traditions.
However, you asked about our collective mindset, and I think it’s one of prideful defeat right now. Coming from Detroit, we were like everyone’s drunk uncle to the great economic and political forces in New York and Washington - big, loud, tough, crass and ill mannered but we did the back breaking, every day physical labor that allowed them to do what they do and be who they are, so we were tolerated.
Now we’re out of date and bankrupt of cash and ideas—that’s the perception anyway—so we get shat upon by New York and DC. They give the banks and insurance giants hundreds of billions of dollars as unaccounted for gifts, but break the balls of the car companies and the UAW when they ask for a loan ten times smaller. As a result of all of this, we’re filled with this civic paradox of self-doubt vs. pride and fear vs. hope. So trying to capture this paradox in a song is both inspiring and very difficult to get right.
President Obama is the personification of the hope; the fact that all your friends are out of work is the personification of the fear. But it all needs to come down to the level of the neighborhood and go from there. We’re Midwesterners, and that carries a code like any other regional distinction. In the true Midwest, we place the value of living in loyalty to a few friends and family, maybe one or two chosen institutions, usually unions and churches, and finally in a deep trust with the land and water around us. We’re a lot more open to change than the rest of the country realizes when it’s clear the way we used to do it isn’t working any more. That was my point behind the song “That’s The Way We Do It In Detroit”— we have a lot of pride that we were the backbone to this country once and know we can do it again. Just don’t deal us out of the game.
Review: Your output has been considerable and consistent over the past two decades. Where do you draw your inspiration to tackle age-old issues of the human heart and life in general with a fresh perspective?
Stewart: I’m a late bloomer. Because I was bucking so many established things to just be an artist in the first place, to try and function as a musician, I was uneducated in the arts and had a defiant street rock and roll attitude that was based on insecurity and anger. So I felt I needed an apprenticeship that was long and intense to overcome my lack of formal musical education.
I overpaid my dues in bars and clubs, learning how to play and perform, and didn’t make my first record for public distribution until I was 34, when my daughter was born. I just noticed that Leonard Cohen was the same age when he made his first record, and he’s now the toast of the town all over the world at 74—there’s my career arc right there.
After that my aim was to make a record a year, which is what I did until leukemia came calling. Cancer is not a good career move. So I’ve made 11 since 1995, with a new one on the way this fall.
I also worked as a freelance writer for several years and wrote countless reviews, interviews and features for a lot of publications—mostly the Detroit Metro Times - between 1983 and 1994. Many of those pieces were collected in a book called Between The Ground & God, which came out in 2004. I also wrote another book of prose, poetry and photographs about the physical beauty of Pt Lookout, a place on Lake Huron just north of Bay City that’s been another home to me since birth. I’m currently working on a book about the illness and the idea of survival.
It’s almost humorous to think about now, but when I was 19 and jamming in garages and basements, then in every crappy bar in Michigan for ten years, it was a real point of contention with my dad, who wanted me to cut my hair and work for GM. He worked for them; all my uncles and cousins worked for them or wanted to. Everyone I knew was associated with the auto trade in one form or another. I’d spent nearly 18 months bending transmission hoses at Steering Gear and putting water pumps on engine blocks on the assembly line at Oldsmobile in Lansing and knew I didn’t want to work for GM.
It’s important to remember that playing guitar in a band was once a thing of real rebellion to the establishment and a rejection of some safer things in life. Now it’s a preferred career choice—parents sign their kids up for rock school and make sure they have the best gear and a home studio! My father and I have been given the gift of time to work things out and he’s seen me have some success, so we’ve been very close for many years now.
My point is that I had to fight, hard, to carve out this life for myself. So there’s a weird irony when thinking that GM will have to declare bankruptcy before I will. I say that only as it relates to my own story - in the larger picture it’s of course heartbreaking to watch friends and family lose jobs, benefits and 401k money. But the ironic reality is astounding: Who would ever dream that being a musician was the wiser choice in the long run? It goes back to the age-old thing of following your heart of hearts. There really was no choice. It chose me as much as I chose it.
As far as finding inspiration, I’ve been lucky. I always have a fresh title idea or a melody working in my head. You take it where you find it. True inspiration lasts seconds, really - just enough to glimpse the whole song or get the whisper of the melody and feel. Then you just grind the rest out with the tricks of the trade. There are a whole lot of things that you have to do to remain open to inspiration, and a lot of them can make you appear very strange and out of step with every day society as far as personal behavior. So folks—don’t judge your artists too harshly. We’re listening to satellite radio without a radio.
Review: Every artist has high points, low points, and breakthrough moments in his or her career. What are some of those high and low points in your own career and can you recall those moments when you knew the work you were producing would take you to a different higher level? Also, what are the three favorite albums (discs) that stand out for you as representing your strongest work?
Stewart: Because I’m the kind of songwriter who uses his own life as both material and measuring stick, the high points in my every day life have also been high points in my artistic or work life. And vice versa. There’s a real right brain-left brain aspect to my survival. There’s the actual work, the conception of songs, the music, the arranging, recording and performing live. Then there’s the business and the general idea of “success.” We delude ourselves by re-defining the terms of success until we get closer to it.
I always feel optimistic and enthusiastic about the music and the songwriting and recording. It’s why I do all the other things. But as we all know, the music business is a brutal, bone crunching, heart stomping business. Then there’s a downside to it. The low points, to be honest, have been many over the years—when the travel is long and low rent, when the phone doesn’t ring, when a gig isn’t done well, when you’re not given the respect or paid even half of what you’re worth, when I was sick and performed poorly, when you question devoting your life so completely to one thing. It’s not easy.
The whole idea of being a man who loves his wife and children ferociously yet has had difficulty supporting them, knowing you’re better at what you do than 99% of the lawyers, CEOS, doctors and bankers out there are at what they do...that’s both confusing and depressing. Yet you knew all this going in, as a young person who could and would survive anything to stay in touch with and true to the music. So there’s no complaining, because the music is both the reward and an end in itself. And I am married to a woman who deeply understands the artistic struggle and its importance, and we love each other like the day we met.
Fortunately a lot of the real dark days are behind me for a little while, knock on wood. I have the respect of my colleagues and a real relationship with a loyal audience. I can call myself a success by my own stringent definition now, not by how the world sees me, or by how the entertainment industry hands it out. I never knew that the music I was making would matter, or take me to another level. I’ve always approached it with self-doubt and a hopeful urgency.
I did have a feeling when I recorded “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” that it had a kind of sexiness that could make it a hit. And I knew I was writing things that felt desperately true to me with What We Talk Of. I knew "Motor City Serenade" had an undeniable groove while we played it.
The high points are too many to mention: so many great gigs, recording with The Funk Brothers, watching little sketches of songs become big, breathing documents of our condition. There’ve been a ton of amazing nights here in Saginaw, several at Bo White's place, several at Meinberg's, one with Leo Najar and the Symphony doing some of my songs, and then the 2007 show with Brian James for Dr. Fields Foundation. The night the Detroit Music Awards honored me in the midst of the transplant with a special award and a lengthy standing ovation; that tore me up. So there’s just a general sense of satisfaction knowing I’m better than I was. I worked at it, found my voice and what inspired me, and in all areas I think I’m better than I was when I began.
Look at the way things were when I started—there was very little respect for the survival of the independent artist. You had the initial set of gatekeepers—the labels, run by A&R men and women who often got the job because an uncle was the promo man in Buffalo, then radio, with program directors that weren’t music people, making decisions about airplay based on a whole set of corrupt ideas. Then agents and promoters. And here I was, making music for my audience. Skipping over the gatekeepers and making music for a perceived group of like minded, well intentioned, emotionally involved people that I wanted to reach on both a very deep yet conversational level with my songs. I wasn’t playing to the gatekeepers. And it was very hard to get to the intended audience unless you got through the gatekeepers first.
But then there’s this secondary set of gatekeepers—the rock press, the record stores, song publishers, regional booking agents and promoters and TV licensing companies. And that’s really where I caught a break. My work was validated and understood by some very insightful and influential writers, like Dave Marsh, Craig Werner, the daily writers in major cities and people such as yourself. Then Sandy Bean and Jerry Adams at Harmony House—they had 40 stores as late as 1998 and promoted me and my music because they respected my work ethic. Then Marianne Goode at Rondor placed several songs on prominent national tv shows. All of the Detroit media were great to me - Mitch Albom had me on his show a lot and was very helpful with opportunities. Then the people at the Palace and what is now Live Nation put me on tons of shows with national acts, and that spread to other agencies and promoters, and I worked and worked and all of a sudden had a real career because I had finally reached a portion of that mythological audience—without being crowned by the first rung of gatekeepers.
Now, in 2009, I'm of the opinion that we’re just one holiday retail season away from the end of the cd as the dominant music-holding media. The first rung gatekeepers—the labels, commercial radio, monopolized promoters—are not relevant to my ability to make music, increase my audience and make a living. All labels did was make someone very famous, then exploit that fame by selling merchandise, and they worked very hard and spent hundreds of millions doing it. Now shelf space is infinite with digital stores. Gaining attention at digital superstores like itunes is important, and still hard to do, but it’s possible for me.
The digital realm for music changes everything. There’s never been a middle class for creative artists—it’s either been very very famous and rich or very very broke—but that reality has shifted in the last 10 years. There’s more power in the hands of the creators themselves, and your ability to reach people is based on the emotional reach of your music, the reaction it engenders via word of mouth, and its accessibility. Recorded music will soon be free to all—I don’t see any other way that can go. The option to pay for music and support an artist you love will be one way of subsidizing careers, along with live work, which has always been the staple and always will be.
The three records that I’ve made that I think work well are Where The River Meets The Bay, my first one, that really is a realized daydream about this part of Michigan and its fictional characters. The lyrics were influenced by three things—the poetry of Theodore Roethke and James Wright, my youth in the Saginaw area, and my talks with you about it all.
Then House Of Lights, which is a poetic examination of family life and the fragility that domestic life brings. The last is What We Talk Of… When We Talk, my homage to the Funk Brothers and Marvin Gaye that really helped me find my adult voice as a singer, musician and songwriter working in the soul idiom.
I have to add to that the single “Motor City Serenade,” which is an extension of What We Talk Of, and the record I started to really sing well on. My inner Sam Cooke/Rod Stewart/Frankie Miller voice. There are a couple high points on Wheel Of Life too, but just a couple. And Sunflower Soul Serenade taught me how to use the studio as an instrument—I played most of the instruments myself, arranged complex counterpoint vocal harmonies and was absolutely obsessed with Brian Wilson’s early work and The Beatles’ middle period. Revolver and Sgt Pepper. A lot of fans and friends tell me they love that record best.
Review: Does music feel as 'strong' to you today - not only in terms of being a motivating force personally and professionally - but in terms of its significance and importance to audiences, as it did back when you first started out?
Stewart: The slightly cynical part of me says that it’s not as important and self defining as it was when we came of age in the 70s, or how it’s depicted in Cameron Crowe’s brilliant Almost Famous. But my daughter is now 15, and her love of her own bands and their songs is every bit as intense as mine was, if not more so. I could argue that she’s not hearing music as good as ours—by good I mean inspired, mystical, nuanced, vibrantly alive, evocative, well written, well sung, and life affirming. But that would sound like every father in every generation since 1920. As I said earlier, it’s now a very viable career choice for these kids. Their dads all manage them. I think my dad wanted to strangle me.
So the answer that trumps my cynicism is yes, it’s even more important today for people, for two reasons. First is its ubiquity. I remember trying to find a clip of Van Morrison singing live when I was a kid, and couldn’t find anything about him until the Kirshner show, and that was just an hour a week. Or in high school we’d go to Green Acres at midnight on weekends to see old black and white clips of The Beatles, and the theater would be full! Now music and music videos and music in film is like oxygen. It’s everywhere, whether we want it or not.
The second reason is that we now have rock and roll elders. We’ve grown up and grown old with this music. The tradition has borne its own fruit and lasted as a real art form, with a worldwide commercial apparatus to support it. So yes yes yes, a song can still quite literally change a life, save a life, heal a broken heart, and see a person through the best and worst parts of their life. If I didn’t believe that, my adult life would be a hollow act. I think it’s generational conceit to think “our” music was any more important than the music is today. It’s something I think about a lot, how immense a jump it was stylistically from Sinatra to The Beatles, Stones, Elvis and Chuck Berry—and how the next jump has not gone down yet.
Review: What is the best advice you received from any of the famous (or not so famous) musicians you've worked with over the decades - or any individuals apart from the music business - that you feel made a pivotal impact in your life and career?
Review: There are many aspects to answering this question, and I’ll try and hit on each of them briefly. When I was 19, I had two once-in-a-lifetime mentors. First was Boogie Bob Baldori of The Woolies, who put me in his band when I was greener than green—I couldn’t play a lick and didn’t know my name. My hip quotient was zero. He taught me everything--how to work an audience, how to wrap a cord after a gig, how to listen to each other, how to write a business plan for budgets. He taught me about keeping tempo, dynamics, how something quiet can kill an audience, how soul and R&B music remains primarily a vocal music, and how a band should work with and around the singer. He taught me where the back of the beat is. He turned me on to Howlin Wolf, Robert Johnson, Henry Adams and Luis Bunuel. He took me to Chicago repeatedly to see the best blues acts—James Cotton and Luther Allison—and meet these shady characters deep inside the music business.
Through Bob and his band I was soon playing bass on some dates with Chuck Berry, who taught me about guitar playing, syncopation, feel and vocal clarity. Here I was working with the guy who literally wrote the book. Listen to Chuck sing—he enunciates every syllable, like the King’s English. He also taught me, by his negative example, some things not to do as far as handling human relationships in the context of the music business. He was a ball breaker with promoters and agents, and would sometimes throw a performance away if he was pissed or irritated, and that really hurt audiences—you could see it in their faces.
One night at Hart Plaza in Detroit I was sitting backstage with him before we went on, and he asked me how old I was. He called me Francke, as in Frankie—a lot of my black friends call me Frankie, like it’s my first name. Anyway, in the course of the conversation he said, “Frankie, ain’t no such thing as a dumb artist.” Chuck was way out front on the whole DIY thing. Don’t get ripped off, don’t be naïve, stupid and trusting. Be an artist, but do things yourself. Chuck is a brilliant man. Put all your eggs in one basket, then watch the shit outta that basket. Chuck Berry music probably remains my favorite kind of music.
Since then, I’ve learned a little something from everyone I’ve played with. Bob Seger’s old guitar player, Drew Abbott, played with me for about a year and gave me some tough love toward my songwriting that was helpful. Warren Zevon once emphasized to me, over a vat of pureed garlic, that show business was all about the coming and going—the entrances and exits. Make a splash coming out—start on fire---then leave them wanting more.
One thing that really pushed me ahead as far as my own songs was a letter I received from Dave Marsh on Christmas Eve, 1990. I had read Dave since the 70s, in Creem and Rolling Stone , but we were just getting to know each other as friends. I’ve been as influenced by the great rock critics and historians as much as I have by the music itself. Marsh, Greil Marcus, Craig Werner, Ben Edmonds, Daniel Wolff, Lester Bangs, David Ritz, Eric Rasmussen, Thom Jurek, Sue Whitall and Jaan Uhelvski—all those people made me feel I wasn’t crazy, that other people sought as much and found as much in a song or concert as I did.
I had made a couple cassettes at home with many of the songs that would appear on Where The River Meets The Bay, and Dave wrote me an incredibly honest and encouraging note about the nature of my own talent, the sacrifice an artistic life calls for, and the kind of difference I could make. It validated my desires. Dave has become a very close friend over time. He was the first person I called when I was told I had leukemia, for many reasons. I needed the words to tell my wife and Dave had unfortunately been through the cancer experience and is also one of the most compassionate, learned people on the planet. Dave has been an incredible friend and mentor for nearly 25 years.
I’ve had the great luck and joy to work with so many people I admire and respect. I once opened for Mick Taylor at the Bottom Line in New York and he was very encouraging about my songs and helpful with arranging ideas. And then as a journalist myself I was able to interview Johnny Cash or Sting or Yoko or Seger, or spend a couple days with George Clinton in the studio, and ask them the questions I found most important. You find after awhile that you already knew what you needed to know--that your initial instincts were true and that you could and should trust yourself.
It seems my life went from black and white to color on September 3, 1978 when I saw Bruce and the ESB at the Saginaw Civic Center. I was about a week away from turning 20 and was still working at Steering Gear, and he made the idea of doing anything else with my life seem irrelevant. I had to be a musician, a songwriter and performer. I had no idea how to go about it, but I had to do it. A Marshall Crenshaw show in 1982 further cemented that deal, made me quit the last day job I ever had the next morning, at a printing plant in Livonia. Then a couple years ago, Bruce said some good things about my music to a Detroit radio host, and he’s been great to me and my family when we’ve met.
One night at the Royal Oak Music Theater, Steve Winwood talked to me about what a live band should be. We’d just opened for him, then he followed with what is still the most scorching show I’ve ever witnessed.
The working principles of rock and soul music are all shared and repeated by the best people. Over the years I guess I’ve gleaned them down to this trio of rules: Less truly is more; content dictates form; and then of course lastly comes the rule that there are no rules!
That’s the best part about this however—this job comes complete with a very precise and inspired set of instructions and road maps. It’s all right there on the records you love, on the songs that gave you goose bumps, or in the books that changed you. The whole history of recorded music is a map.
There it is…get your own music so it sounds close to the best stuff without sacrificing your own individuality and story. That’s one thing I do say to younger musicians now—and it’s increasingly important for me to pass along what I know: They’ll ask how a demo sounds, or even a finished record, and I’ll say ‘You’ve heard P-Funk or The Beatles or Aretha or James Brown or L’il Wayne or Metallica. That’s how good it needs to sound, what it needs to aspire to.’
My editor at the Metro Times, Thom Jurek, opened my eyes, mind and soul up to the possibilities of art and the concept of the creative connection, how Louis Armstrong begot Jay McShann begot Count Basie begot Ike Turner begot Booker T & The MGs begot CCR begot Pearl Jam begot The Hold Steady. Or how Dos Passos was trying to “write” the Cezanne landscape. Incredibly bright guy. There's an online group called Strat I'm a part of - writers, musicians, academics, critics - and it's made up of people I've become very close to. Strat is like a mentoring social/activist group, for all concerned.
I probably learned all the shit that really matters in life from Coach Picard when I was on The Picells flag football team as a young boy in Saginaw. Be on time, make sure your uniform fits, know your role, rely on yourself and support your teammates. Be disciplined and don’t ever settle.
I obviously learned a tremendous amount from both my parents about the simple joy found in work and friendship—that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. They were often surrounded by people, by friends and family. Have some fun man. My family’s always been close—my sisters and my parents and I—and that’s been something you don’t fully appreciate until even just a part of it is gone. I miss my Mother more than I can express. My dad is a bona fide great man—caring, smart and larger than life in many ways. The best listener I’ve ever known, and a lifelong advocate of Saginaw. His example made it impossible to settle for anything less than all I could muster.
So there have been many mentors and much advice. I can’t think of anyone I haven’t learned something from. All the men and women I’ve played and sung with. My wife is incredibly wise, and is always reminding me about brevity (not that you'd know it from this answer!) and levity and is easily the person I listen to the most. And of course one’s kids are always reminding you to shut the fuck up and stop embarrassing them. Not bad advice.
Review: What are some of your future goals and how do you view the architecture on this next stage of your career?
Stewart: I feel like I’m just starting anew, after a merciless period of illness, death and hard growth. Starting anew, but doing my best work now. I’m as excited about making music as I’ve ever been. My most immediate goals are to finish recording this new record and get it out by October of this year. With the ramp up now to a new release, you have to be done 5 months ahead of time.
Then I’d like to finish the book about the bone marrow transplant and aspects of survival. At some point I’d like to do a live recording of the entire What We Talk Of…album, with strings and all, not unlike what Van just did with Astral Weeks.
I’d also like to write a musical around my songs and their attendant themes. I’ve talked about this with my friend Brian d’arcy James, who is now playing Shrek on Broadway and probably will be for some time to come. But I’d like to write it with him.
I also have an idea for a children’s book based on the stories I made up to tell my kids at bedtime when they were little. I created this incredibly tall tale mythology about a man called The Woodman, who reigns over the great woods of central and northern Michigan, and many, many other fantastical characters and plot lines. I’ve had more trouble coming up with these surreal and imaginative stories since I went to rehab. And a title of “The Woodman” has a whole different meaning to the mind of a 13 year old boy than it does a 6 year old boy.
And I certainly want to play more shows… whatever’s possible. I know very well that no one is promised tomorrow, so I hope I get a chance to try and fulfill some of these dreams. You need dreams at every age—maybe more so as you get older. But physically I don’t really feel any different than I did at 30 while I’m on stage, and that’s saying something after the torture my body’s been through. I’d also like to make a record of all Chuck Berry covers—there’s a responsibility to keep that kind of music alive and out of the hands of bad country acts.
Review: I love those 'Proust Questionnaires' that they publish in Vanity Fair, so given the nature of this pending All Area honor, feel a few that I feel are appropriate: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Stewart: The minute right before you are introduced to go on stage is a moment of perfect happiness. So is the rest of the time you’re out there. Carnal moments create perfect happiness—clean sheets and a beautiful woman. God, that last sentence sounds like Himmler’s dying wish. It doesn’t take much to make me happy - being near any body of water with my wife, kids and friends after having done some very hard work - whether it’s a show, a recording session or changing a tire. There’s also a profound sense of purpose visiting a bmt floor or a chemo ward and letting someone in the midst of a transplant see for themselves that you can not only survive but maybe even thrive after it. I love late night, listening to Marvin Gaye with a bottle of Tavel. Or when a song comes through and I realize the melody is something new, I still tear up every time that happens. That’s perfect happiness.
What is your greatest fear?
That’s easy, as it’s my only fear. I don’t even want to give it voice, but it involves my children and is the worst thought for any parent. Everything else I was afraid of has happened.
What living person do you most admire?
What is your greatest extravagance?
I have 22 guitars. That’s my single extravagance. But my life has been extravagant in an empirical way, not in material rewards. I drive a ten-year old Jeep and live in an 86 year old house and have many of the same friends I had when I was 12.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Patience is over-rated. I almost died, and there ain’t no yellow light or warning shot to let you know it’s comin’. The clock ain’t just ticking; it’s exploding. I often feel like I’m running a relay race against time, I’ve lost my shoes, and I just dropped the baton, and the rest of my team is white. After patience, I’d say love is stronger than faith but it’s a close call. I’m thinking of calling this new record Love Is The Only Law—I have a song done with that title. It’s a political statement as well as a personal notion. In my youth I thought Prudence to be not only over-rated but ridiculous, but time changes you on that one.
What words or phrases do you most overuse?
I probably tell people I love them too often, or that I’m impressed or excited by something they’ve done. That’s all due to leukemia and the bmt and the specter of death and the brevity of life. Why wait, and why hold back? Being unable to express love, pay a compliment or encourage is a character flaw. Stoicism is about seeking attention as much as fawning is. Hemingway had a motto that went, “Praise to the face is a form of disgrace,” and a lot of men of his generation lived by that. Probably why one of his sons cross-dressed, then killed himself. Say it now, what you feel, while you’re alive, and say it often. I don’t mean be insincere or hypocritical—don’t say it if you don’t feel it.
When and where were you the happiest?
My childhood from birth to age 11 was very very happy, in school at Chester Miller, summers at Hoyt Park and on Lake Huron. Then there was a period between 26 and 30 when I discovered this certain strain of arcane music and singers. It was the longest time I ever lived alone, before I was married, and I was finally starting to write some good songs - my Little Willie John and Roy Orbison period - very moody in a good way. But I have to say that this is the happiest time of my life, despite the recent loss of my Mom, my in-laws and a couple friends. I have a deeper understanding of who I am, what I can do, why I want to do it, and I no longer have the frantic compulsion that comes with the longing for more.
What is your greatest regret?
I’ve lived my life with the singular aim of having no regrets. But still, here they are, although numbered just a few and not totally debilitating. I regret not befriending more people, sooner. Being full of hubris in my youth. Letting some relationships wither. Addiction was highly destructive to everything I loved—that's a real regret.
I think I’ve juiced the most out of my talent as I can, married the right person and lived largely on my own terms, so I have no real huge regrets. I think I'm a good father and a real person to my kids. I did live for about five years there like I was gonna die any minute, so I do have some financial obligations I regret. When it comes to cancer care, I feel like Oskar Schindler at the end of that movie—how he’s distraught that simply buying more Nazi pins would’ve saved more Jewish lives. I lose sleep over this every night—how I could do more for those with cancer, play more fundraisers, go see more people, try to help on every level. But I have no regret about my commitment to that cause. Just wish I had more time and money to go toward it.
What is your motto?
I guess I live by a couple mottos: